“I think the underlying thing was being outside. Running was, and still is, a way to get me outside.”
It was dark and he was lost. Hugh Tower-Pierce and his friend Jeff had taken a wrong turn, and had run out of daylight. The two teenagers had been out hiking on Mount Mansfield for ten hours, and he knew his parents would be freaking out. Eventually, they made it down the mountain, and it became a formative event for him. “I had so much fun, just being out there and being able to take care of myself outside.”
The lightly traveled, rolling dirt roads of Nova Scotia were the setting for Hugh’s earliest running memories, during his family’s summer vacations. It was an annual tradition, making the 750 mile trek from Vermont to their summer playground. “Each summer, during my dad’s break from school, I ran there.” He had several relatives in the area, spaced a few miles apart, and he preferred running as a way to go between houses.
Hugh was introduced to competitive running in middle school, by an unexpected person, his science teacher, who was starting a cross-country running program. As he moved into high school, he continued to run on the cross-country team, and also took up skiing. By his junior year, Hugh was running year-round. He had also developed the mindset of chasing his goals, through hard work. “If you’re gonna be good, you can’t wait for people to tell you what to do.”
College brought Hugh back to the comforts of his childhood summer trips, as he attended Dalhousie University in Halifax. His running and skiing took a backseat for his first three years of school. A pivotal moment happened during his senior year, when he stumbled onto a story about Mark Gilbertson, a highly decorated skier who was also from Vermont. “His story was inspirational, and I wanted to recreate that, and see how far I could get with cross-country skiing.”
After college, Hugh moved back to Vermont, with a laser-focused goal of making the Olympic team. He was soon competing in ski races on the weekends and trained during the week. He got connected with Walter Pichler, a ski coach from Germany, who volunteered to mentor him. “During that time, about 70 percent of the training was running.” It was a busy time of training six days a week, often twice a day, and working part time as he chased his dream. Luckily, he also had a special woman in his life, who helped anchor him. He had first met Julie back in high school, and they continued dating throughout college.
2002 was a year of endings, as well as new beginnings for Hugh. His Olympic journey ended in Utah, at the last qualifying event at Soldier Hollow, for the Salt Lake City winter games, and his times hadn’t been fast enough. “In the end, with the amount I was putting into it, I wasn’t getting the performance that I wanted.” He had no regrets, and had met incredible people along the way, but was also feeling burnt out. Just a few months later, in the backdrop of the Italian countryside, he celebrated new beginnings, marrying Julie, surrounded by their family and friends.
Over the next couple years, Hugh and Julie welcomed a daughter and son into their lives and moved to Washington D.C. Everything was new, his growing family, new surroundings and a new career. Now retired from skiing and the arduous training that came with it, he had a thought that lingered in his mind from his old training days. “I felt like I did better, the longer the distance was. It gave me this idea, that maybe that was something I should explore.” It turned out Hugh’s intuition was right on – and ultrarunning was the perfect match.
His first ultramarathon took him to the Blue Ridge mountains, for a 50k race. He loved the simplicity of the sport, and the fact that he didn’t need much gear to hit the trails. He laughed when thinking back to entering the race. “The barrier to entry was deceptively easy.” The race also provided him with an element he leaned into. “The mental struggle, just to finish was something that resonated with me.”
Hugh raced sporadically over the next few years, but was gaining momentum and continued to look for more challenges. His family was also expanding, with the birth of another daughter and son. In 2010, he moved his family back to Vermont, and was ready to take his love of ultrarunning to a whole new level. “I felt like I had found the zone where I wanted to be. Being out there for many hours in the trails and mountains, a lot of single track. That’s what I had been looking for.”
He has not stopped running since. Early on, he enjoyed 50k races, including the El Vaquero Loco out in Wyoming. “It was a mountain run, in the middle of nowhere, and the scenery was beautiful. That was really fine-tuning the flavor that I wanted.” He then bumped up to the 50 mile distance, making the Vermont 50 an annual tradition. A few years later, he was watching video clips of a little-known race held in Pittsfield, Vermont. “I saw the diabolical things that they were doing, to essentially, try to break you and get you to drop out. I just thought that was the coolest thing.” He wanted to do more than watch, so Hugh signed up for his first Death Race. He competed in many summer and winter versions of this event, recalling memories of running an overnight 50k, barefoot and in his underwear, as well as a below zero night, sitting in a river, after standing in a barn for two hours, experiencing sensory deprivation, wearing an eye patch and headphones.
His races have brought him all over the world, to an array of venues. In 2018, he finished the Cruel Jewel, a 106 mile mountain race in Georgia. He then moved onto the Vermont 100, where he picked up his third straight belt buckle. Six weeks later, he finished the UTMB in France in just over 43 hours. He topped off the year, with a 50k race in South Africa, competing alongside his daughter.
This past decade has brought Hugh incredible highs, from his personal life, to his career as well as his running adventures. He also suffered the devastating loss of his father to suicide. Throughout it all, and even going back to high school, has been the love of his life, Julie, supporting him the whole way. She is his steadying influence, on and off the trails, and is the person with whom he would most want to share a run with. He recalled a few races, where he was on the brink of quitting, and how Julie single-handedly kept him moving forward with her belief in him.
Looking forward to 2019, Hugh has a few highlights on his racing calendar. He has some unfinished business at the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, in northwestern Italy, where he will run in the 100k, a race he had to drop out of two years ago. In May, he and his daughter will both compete in the Transvulcania ultramarathon in the Canary Islands. Longer term, he hopes to continue to compete in this sport, and share the trails with his four children.
“Running helps me manage the various mental struggles that I have. Running is a healthy way to take care of that, I’m certainly happier after I run.” His dad was not a runner, and did not have that outlet. Hugh often wonders how his dad’s life may have been different if he had discovered the many benefits that running has provided him.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I was struck by Hugh’s early dedication to the sport of running. Beginning with those childhood summer runs in Nova Scotia, to running year-round as a teenager, to travelling around the world as an adult. Where has the motivation come from? He thought about it for a couple seconds. “I think the underlying thing was being outside. Running was, and still is, a way to get me outside.”